Even after 20 years, I can still recall the haunting moans as they drifted towards shore on that still summer evening. Out on the lake, a neighbor's 18-month-old son had fallen overboard. In the ensuing panic to reach the child, the father had followed. My cousin was just putting his boat away for the evening when he heard the father's weak cry for help. He found the child, still conscious and clad in his PFD, floating face up nearly 20 yards from the boat. The father, who became entangled with the prop during his plunge over the side, needed to be airlifted to the closest hospital.
Boating is fun, and as a result, most of us parents can't wait to share it with our children. Just like any other facet of parenthood, however, introducing your child into your boating lifestyle requires a lot of forethought. "Safe boating with children can be great fun and a fantastic adventure for all," says Cathy Ferriss, a certified YMCA Aquatic Instructor from Safety Harbor, Florida. "It does, however, require a little thought, planning, and preparation —but what doesn't when you include kids!"
And you thought changing diapers was a challenge.
Safe boating with children starts with a properly fitted PFD. Try different styles on for comfort, but verify that the vest is Coast Guard-approved and that it is the right one for your child's weight. That info will be stamped on the inside of the vest. "The life jacket should go on the child before they ever leave the house, or get out of the car at the launch ramp," says Ferriss. "Water is shiny and it moves. You will have your hands full of supplies, and that is when your child will go straight for the water."
Young children (typically under 50 pounds and four years of age) are best served with a Type II PFD, recognized by the "pillow" behind the child's head. Why the pillow? It's easy to teach children to lean their heads back against it; that will keep their face upright, offer more stability, and allow the child to stay on their back and relaxed. This type of PFD also features a handle, which a rescuer can use to tow a child to safety while remaining safely out of reach of flailing hands. Before you go aboard, let your child get used to the jacket, both in and out of the water. Vests should fit snugly, giving no more than three inches when lifted at the shoulders, and with the crotch strap securely fastened. When to start? The Coast Guard recommends leaving infants at the dock until they are at least 18 pounds (typically shy of one year). Common sense dictates that a child should not be brought aboard until a PFD fits them properly, and will stay secure.
According to a 2002 USCG ruling, children under the age of 13 are required to wear a PFD any time while underway, unless below decks or in an enclosed cabin. The catch? Existing state regulations, even if less stringent, take precedence. Florida only requires PFDs on children under the age of six and only on boats under 26 feet in length. Sorry, but things can go wrong on a 30-plus footer just as easily as they can on a 19-foot runabout. USCG statistics show over half of the boating deaths of children under 13 are a result of drowning, most of which could have been prevented had the child been wearing a properly fitting PFD. Regardless of the size of your vessel, put a vest on your child before leaving shore. Getting a PFD on a little one is a challenge in perfect conditions; it will be next to impossible in a panic situation.
In the event your child does go overboard, practice your response. Assuming there are at least two adults on board, Ferriss suggests having the passenger take control of the situation. That person should tell the driver to immediately kill the engine and stay aboard, then grab another PFD, survey the scene for traffic and safety hazards, and then enter the water. Swim to the child, keeping the head above water to maintain constant sight. That second PFD will provide flotation for the rescuer and allow them to conserve energy for the tow back to the boat. Perhaps the best suggestion comes from the Coast Guard: one person should be assigned to keep tabs on a young child at all times while on board, and that person should already be wearing a PFD.
Finally, avoid going it alone until those kids are older. A captain's attention should be on his boat while underway"¦ not what his toddler is up to.